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Keep Calm and Don’t Fret about China's Visiting a U.S. Aircraft Carrier

Keep Calm and Don’t Fret about China's Visiting a U.S. Aircraft Carrier

Washington has many things to worry about when it comes to the People's Republic of China—this is not one of them.

In the pages of the New York Times opinion section Richard Cohen, the former director of the renowned United States Naval Institute rails against the possible visit of Chinese military personnel to an American aircraft carrier to “learn about maintenance and operational procedures.” He argues that “the proposal would be less an exchange than a transfer of knowledge and perhaps even of technology” and that “Washington should not give a potential boost to the Chinese military.” Unfortunately for the former director, the wind has already been taken out of his sails for a number of reasons. 

First, one needs to consider the most ominous sounding part of the request, the “maintenance and operational procedures” part. It seems to have already been nixed by the U.S. military. According to a recent article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert discussed Chinese Admiral Wu Shengli’s recommendation to hold meetings involving American and Chinese carrier personnel concerning “details on maintenance and tactics.”  The Journal quotes Greenert as stating “that was deemed to be inappropriate by our folks, our policy folks, so we set that aside.” Greenert did comment that Wu would “like his crew to get a tour of the George Washington and have the George Washington crew, a gaggle of them, come to the Liaoning” with the possibility of a U.S. carrier coming to a Chinese port. So, it would seem, instead of Chinese officers possibly learning important maintenance and operational information, the request boils down to a simple exchange of personnel in a tour type format.

Unless Chinese officers have discovered the much-fabled art of the Vulcan mind meld there is very little to fear from a possible Chinese tour of an American carrier—even if for an extended period of time. In fact, in possibly declining such requests, we run the danger of feeding into a “China threat” narrative—in not just its military but overall rise and its implication—that seems more like fear mongering than actual legitimate national security concerns. Simply put: we would be focusing on the wrong set of issues when it comes to Beijing’s military and territorial aspirations—issues that are of vital importance to the U.S.

Before we dismiss Cohen’s argument as sheer hysterics—considering the most newsworthy aspect of it seems dead for now—it is worth breaking down his idea that “allowing the Chinese to see the level of automation or redundancy in certain American systems would go a long way to speeding up their learning curve — and, ultimately, strengthening their military.” Carrier operations, even at their most basic level, take decades to get right and use effectively in combat. No tour or something much more extensive can take the place of years of specialized training and operational experience. As frequent National Interest contributor U.S. Naval War College Professor James Holmes pointed out in 2012 in The Diplomat:

Even after developing concepts for operating fixed-wing jet aircraft from carriers, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps lost thousands of airframes and lives perfecting sound techniques. Reports retired Capt. Robert ‘Barney’ Rubel, dean of naval warfare studies at the Naval War College, the two sea services lost 776 aircraft and 535 airmen in 1954 alone. History won’t spare Chinese aviators the pain of learning their craft.

Beyond sound technical operations, one needs to develop the supporting vessels to travel large distances at sea, as well as the protective screens to defend the billions of dollars worth of equipment and sailors that are needed to man such complex weapons of war. No Chinese visit of a U.S. carrier or exchange of carrier personnel—no matter how detailed—will give Beijing such competence. In fact,  China has been working on carrier technology for sometime with little in real results, besides one heck of a story. Coming aboard a U.S. carrier will do little to solve their most basic problems. Nothing will replace the experience gained by time and the daily ins and outs of operating a carrier and its supporting vessels. Clearly the short cuts remain few and far between.   

There is also a more simple reason for China making such a request—and one that is much more basic that Cohen’s piece omits—senior American officials have recently been aboard China’s new carrier, not once but on at least on two separate occasions. Back in April of this year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as well as Ambassador Max Baucus was given an extensive tour of the Liaoning. According to a Department of Defense news report they were given a two-hour long tour of the vessel “beginning with a briefing about the ship, its capabilities and operating schedule conducted by the two-star strike carrier group commander and the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Zhang Zheng.” Adm. Greenert visited the same vessel just last month.  I myself described the Hagel/Baucus visit as pretty underwhelming overall, considering the carrier itself is years from being ever ready to fight in an actual conflict and no real sign of true Chinese openness. However, it would not be uncommon for Beijing to ask for a reciprocal visit—in fact, they already have toured the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan at least twice by my count this year alone.

Instead of making a major fuss over military to military exchanges—the one somewhat bright spot in U.S.-Sino relations—and the small pieces of information either side could gain from them, U.S. officials need to keep a laser-like focus on Chinese actions in the Asia-Pacific. We should focus our attention on Beijing’s development of what they term “counter-intervention” weapons and strategies—or what western planners have dubbed Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) which Cohen rightly touches on in his article. Such weapons are designed to keep U.S. forces from intervening in possible flashpoints such as in the East China or South China Seas, Taiwan or points along China’s coast extending out to the first island chain. Combined with Beijing’s aggressive posture in pursuing multiple territorial claims across Asia, U.S. strategists as well as diplomats have enough to worry about when it comes to China. Hyperventilating when it comes to possible visits to American carriers is certainly not one of them.       

Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Fellow (non-resident) at The China Policy Institute, a WSD-Handa Fellow at CSIS and the Managing Editor of the National Interest. You can follow him (or yell at him) on Twitter: @grecianformula.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0